SAN ANTONIO -- LaMarcus Aldridge tossed out the long tights he wore under his uniform recently, and apparently the move finally loosened his game.
Aldridge scored 23 points to lead the San Antonio Spurs to a 97-90 win over Thursday over the Memphis Grizzlies. He shot 10-of-16 from the field and collected eight rebounds and three blocks. Since returning from a brief hiatus to deal with a minor heart arrhythmia, Aldridge over the past four games is shooting 54.9 percent and averaging 22 points.
"I wasn't really a tights guy," Aldridge said. "I tried it out. I don't really wear the tights, and I did it. I've played better since I've ditched them, for sure. So they're gone. They're never coming back. I burned all of them."
Aldridge did it to opponents too, and his recent hot streak comes at the perfect time as San Antonio grapples with navigating the constant double teams that are containing Kawhi Leonard. The forward hasn't matched or surpassed his 26-point scoring average since March 15, and that's mainly a function of the way teams now defend him -- which is to say, relentlessly.
Leonard fought through double teams and traps all night Thursday to score 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and he preserved the victory with a steal late in the game.
"Yeah, the last few games there's been double teams," Leonard said. "Nobody is letting me play one-on-one anymore or come off the pick-and-roll without seeing two bodies on me. But it's good for the team, myself, that we're seeing this early instead of being hit in the playoffs. So I've just got to be patient and confident in my teammates, and they'll knock down the shots. It'll ease up everything for me."
Leonard started the game with three quick assists, and didn't take his first shot until the 7:57 mark in the first quarter, a 19-footer that gave the Spurs a six-point lead.
Aldridge scored nine points in the first quarter on 4-of-8 shooting as the Grizzlies focused on shutting down Leonard. Aldridge connected on a 14-foot turnaround jumper with 2:06 to play in the first half to give the Spurs a 12-point lead. His final bucket, with 2:10 left in the game, notched him his 15,000th career point.
Leonard says he anticipates that in the coming weeks and in the postseason opponents won't be willing to "let me play one-on-one," he said, adding, "I'm not gonna be able to just have a rhythm or just win the game by myself. I don't think that's best for our team. We have to move the ball, not be stagnant and just let me score. Everything has to be involved for us to be at our peak level."
Especially against a hard-nosed defensive squad such as Memphis, the current No. 7 seed in the West, because there's a good chance the Spurs see the Grizzlies again in the opening round of the postseason. Leonard and Aldridge hope tests like Wednesday's serve as adequate preparation.
Aldridge, meanwhile, couldn't pinpoint how he recently has hit such a groove.
"I'm just playing basketball, really," he said. "I'm trying to take my shots and play in a flow. I'm not being as passive as I was earlier in the year and it's working out for me. Not really having trouble [finding shots], just getting passive at times. I'm taking my shots with confidence. I’m finding my rhythm out there. I think my teammates are trying to find me, and it's working out."
Spurs point guard Tony Parker certainly appears to be spearheading the effort to make sure Aldridge gets touches early in games. Parker has said on numerous occasions his main responsibility is to get Aldridge and Leonard involved early in games.
When Aldridge isn't involved early, he seems to struggle to find a rhythm.
"I love playing with him. We're getting along well, and I know where he likes to get his shots," Parker said. "Lately, he's been in a good rhythm. He's been playing well."
Spurs reserve guard Manu Ginobili agreed: "Yeah, and he's good for everybody. The defense has to adjust, too; can't shift off him at all. And, he made us all better. It's great when you can have these easy points any way possible, and his jumpers and Kawhi's plays give us that."
Parker mentioned that the way teams are defending Leonard leads him to search out other options, and he echoed the two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year's prediction that the Spurs will see more of the same in the playoffs.
"You have to see what's open. They went pretty hard at Kawhi tonight," Parker said. "Everybody had to be more aggressive. So we have to make shots, make them change strategy, and come back to one-on one-defense, and then Kawhi can take advantage again."
For now, Aldridge will do the honors, which is fine with the Spurs so long as they continue to pile up victories.
San Antonio's win over Memphis improves its record to 55-16, which makes the Spurs the third franchise in NBA history to notch at least 20 seasons with 55 wins or more; the others are the Boston Celtics (24) and Los Angeles Lakers (23).
"[Aldridge] had that little hiatus there where he had to get some things checked out," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "But I think he looks pretty comfortable shooting the ball, and he's not holding it. He's shooting it when he's open. I think he feels good."